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Why do great leaders leave?

Every leader will eventually leave their role. It’s a fact.

This is not necessarily a bad thing for the leader or the organization. Unfortunately, the discussion of leadership transition is often taboo in the non-profit sector. The fear of this critical conversation, on the part of both leaders and boards of directors, creates a culture of silence. We want to talk about leaders leaving to normalize the conversation and dispel some of the fear and anxiety it can cause. When we talk about it, we can better prepare for and understand these critical times of inflection and reflection.

So, what are some of the reasons leaders leave their organizations and what motivates some of these big, necessary and sometimes dramatic departures in the non-profit ecosystem?

Because it’s time to grow.

Sometimes we reach the limit of what we can learn and how much we can evolve and grow with an organization. Familiarity with a role and duties can lead to stagnation. And though clients are still being served well, professional growth and development have dried up for the leader. And with no PD budget, new challenges and opportunities for learning and growth may be found at another organization.

Because it’s time to go.

When we’ve been at an organization a long time and we see that the team needs new energy and new ideas to spark a new phase of growth and impact, it may be time for us to move on. We may also feel that we’ve just run out of things to contribute at THIS organization. With new challenges and a shakeup of our role we may tap into other skills and talents and have a greater impact elsewhere.

I need to take a step back so others can step forward.

We recognize that we need to create space for emerging leaders, diverse leaders and those who have been waiting years to step into new roles. The function of leadership is to create more leaders.

This job is not sustainable for my mental or physical health.

Because we are so strong as leaders, we often neglect the self-care we actually need to survive. Self-care is critical to our physical and mental health but, unfortunately, there are just some workplace environments that are fundamentally unhealthy, and a positive change doesn’t seem possible, or the effort would just be too much for one leader. It's not okay to hurt ourselves to help others. Too many leaders and executives have mental health breakdowns or end up in the hospital because they did not take care of themselves. One of the leading causes of many of the most detrimental physical and mental illnesses is stress. Sometimes the only way out is to leave.

What got us here, may not be what is needed to move us forward.

It's important to honour and celebrate what we've done. It’s also important to acknowledge that the skills, expertise and leadership that lead to our organizational achievements may not be the skills, expertise and leadership that will take the organization to the next point of growth and impact in today's changing world. Upon reflection, we may learn that the future skills needed at the organization may be found in a different leader.

This organization owes me!

If we’re starting to feel a building resentment to the organization for everything we’ve sacrificed and everything we’ve given in order for the organization to thrive, then it’s time for us to move on. This can be a hard feeling to shake. Even when we know it’s wrong, we never want it to lead to us making poor decisions for the organization.

This organization just doesn’t light my fire like it used to.

We aren't saying that everyone needs to love their jobs, but in the non-profit sector a passion for the work can help fuel a deeper connection to the outcomes. Feeling ‘meh’ about our work can be tricky to unpack and link to a cause. Sometimes despite our best efforts, we just can not rekindle our enthusiasm for the work. It is also possible that we are actually experiencing burnout. You can learn more about burnout by reading this helpful article from the Mayo Clinic.

I feel like I might get let go anytime now.

Let's be honest, though it is not ideal for anyone involved, leaders get fired. If we are getting a sense that things aren't going well, sometimes it is best to just have a really honest and candid conversation to address the issues and possibly plan for leadership transition. This is not always feasible though, so we need to self reflect and dig deep to have courageous conversations with employers and teams to avoid potential crisis.

How do we know when it’s time to go? It is a very personal decision that requires self reflection and honest conversations to uncover the best path forward for our organizations and ourselves. Change can be difficult to accept but it is inevitable and finding the most positive way forward is the best we can do for our organizations and ourselves.

NB: This blog is an introduction to a full report that EPIC Leadership will be creating on intergenerational conversations around leadership transitions in the non-profit sector. More on this soon! 😊


How can I integrate some of these ideas into my leadership practice and experience?

If you are a leader or founder who has provided long-time service at your organization, we encourage you to do some self-reflection.

-When might be a good time to start thinking about moving on?

-What can you start planning now so that when the time comes to transition you and the organization have undergone some preparation?

-What conversations can you start to explore with yourself, your family, your mentors and coaches, and your board?

If you are a board chair or a board director, what would it mean to bring up this topic at your next meeting?

-How could you start to influence a positive discussion so that the rest of the board, and most importantly, your organizational leader feel safe and supported?

If you have questions or think you could benefit from some coaching on succession and leadership transition, then connect with Mike and explore together how we can all do good, better.

Thanks, and we look forward to connecting and exchanging!

The EPIC Team

This blog is a collaborative piece by EPIC team members Michael Prosserman and Tina de los Santos

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